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Are rats abandoning a sinking Alberta Tory ship? The evocative departure of Doug Elniski

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Doug Elniski

My university friend Kirk Patterson, who is alone aboard a sailboat called Silk Purse somewhere along the coast of Japan, has been sending entertaining dispatches via Facebook reporting hopefully that the rat plaguing him may finally have abandoned ship.

I suggested to Kirk -- who had been planning to circumnavigate the island but has prudently given up the plan until typhoon season abates -- that the rat's disappearance may not be as optimistic a signal as it appears at first blush.

We know about these things even here in landlocked and supposedly rat-free Alberta!

Here, for example, another rat has publicly shuffled down the hawsers from HMS Tory and made its way noisily across to the USS Wildrose, which is tied up alongside.

Does this mean the Tory ship is sinking?

It's probably too soon to say. Just the same, let's say it is evocative of something bigger when a guy like Doug Elniski makes an unexpected public declaration of fealty to the Wildrose Party and abandons the Progressive Conservative ship now captained by Alberta Premier Alison Redford, where he's long found a comfortable berth.

After all, Elniski, whose political career was otherwise pretty undistinguished, has distinguished himself by being ready to rush to the side of the right person at the right moment.

He was there in the wee hours of Oct. 2, 2011, attached like a limpet to the side of the newly, and unexpectedly, crowned Alberta Tory leader as she gave her first impromptu news conference to the assembled media.

Elniski was hard to miss, of course, at 6 feet 7 inches, producing a reading on the bathroom scale not unadjacent to 300 pounds and surely on the Richter scale as well if he stomped his foot.

This is as good a place to mention that I refer to Elniski as a rat only in the Churchillian metaphorical sense in reference to his departure and its mode. (As Sir Winston, no stranger to changing political parties, observed of his return to the Tory fold: "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.") I should note also that Elniski is an engaging man whose company can be quite entertaining. Plus, he's way too big to sass.

At any rate, there he was at Redford's side, notwithstanding the fact, as the often undiplomatic former MLA put it more recently, that the former justice minister had "kicked my ass" back in 2009 when as a rookie MLA he injudiciously Tweeted "I am surrounded by bumping and grinding lesbians" from the Edmonton Pride Parade.

According to Elniski, Redford said nothing more to him about that injudicious Tweet afterward. But on Jan. 19, 2012, with the auguries pointing to a Wildrose victory and the NDP retaking his Edmonton-Calder riding in the spring, Elniski nevertheless retired from politics, at least for the time being.

On Friday, however, Elniski was stirring controversy again with the publication on the first day of the Wildrose Party’s two-day policy convention in Red Deer of a new post on his blog, which is appropriately entitled "Doug The Tall Guy." In it, he announced he’d dropped the Tories and joined the Wildrose -- a decision that seems to have been as much of a surprise to the Wildrosers as it was to Redford's PCs.

"The Alberta PC's have had over 40 years to do the right things yet we are now, facing declining demand for our most valuable resource with a government that is merrily marching along like it is 1972 and the Arab oil embargo is still underway," wrote Elniski in justification -- managing to squeeze in a preposterous shot blaming it all on Alberta civil servants as if the premier were merely a semi-innocent bystander.

But any gratitude Elniski felt toward the premier for teaching him "the most valuable lesson I ever learned in politics" -- viz., to keep his trap shut when it helps his case -- seems to have slipped his mind when his former party reacted as one might expect to his defection.

"Imagine how I felt today when someone in her office named Stefan Baranski, retweeted the old issue she and I 'discussed' once he learned I had decided to join the Wild Rose," Elniski exclaimed in shock and innocence.

"This guy apparently had on file, in case he needed it, data on me and I presume all other PC MLA's past and present that he could use if we 'stepped out of line,'" the astonished Elniski explained. "This did nothing but solidify my resolve that the decision I made was the right one."

Well, duh, one is tempted to observe. After all, Baranski is Redford’s communications director, the head of her tireless Tweeting operation at Queen's Park West in Edmonton. And this is politics! Whatever did Elniski expect?

For his part, Elniski concluded his post with a parable about his first years as an MLA when he learned that politics is the art of the possible and democracy a game in which precious little that is democratic takes place behind the closed doors of caucus.

"I was elected in a democracy but I certainly did not work in one," he complained. "There was no incentive for the status quo to change, the PC entitlement mentality can only be overcome by displacement and frankly I think we are very close." (Emphasis added.)

"It is the lack of preparedness for the future and the lack of respect for the past that told me I was in the wrong party," he wrapped up. "So I changed."

Elniski is very big to be such a naïf, but there you have it. Apparently he didn't notice the clockwork precision with which the supposedly more democratic Wildrose Party was on Saturday jettisoning policies dear to the hearts of its most loyal supporters for reasons of political expedience.

Or perhaps Elniski has a practical streak himself, despite his astonished discovery after all these years that politics is played with the elbows up, and concluded that now might just be a fortuitous moment to turn up at the side of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.

Regardless, his departure from the Tories is another sign something is afoot beyond a mere scuttling of rats from one similar vessel to another.

It is said here Redford might be wise to follow the adventurous Patterson's example and tie up in port while she considers the best way to rid her ship of rodents -- perhaps by thinking seriously about who actually got her elected -- and praying that she will be forgiven by the time the typhoon season has blown over.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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